FILL UP YOUR RED WHEEL BARROW: HOW NEW CRITICISM DESTROYS POETRY

red w

It is impossible to tell whether the following phenomenon arose by accident or by design, but millions have fallen quietly under its spell since the Modernism-tinged Writing Program Era fell like a hood over serious poetic practice in the United States beginning in the 1940s.

The intrepid New Critics, who defined poetry pedagogy in both seminar and classroom at the crosswords of the new era when poetry took a hard, professional turn, had no method.

We assume that New Criticism 1) focused on how a text works, 2) apart from real life concerns, and 3) this is why it faded.

But 1) New Criticism hasn’t faded, because the general practice of its rhetoric remains and 2) New Criticism focused on the text only so the ‘new writing’ could crash the party.

We forget these ‘conservative’ New Critics were also, for the most part, Modernist poets looking for readers. Ransom and Tate and their European Modernist friends, such as Eliot and Pound, were poets with only a tiny, small-magazine audience in the 1920s.

By the 1930s, poets like Millay, Dorothy Parker and Frost, who actually sold books, were threatening to overshadow the Modernists completely; the whole experiment was threatening to go under; Ransom and Tate were not on Millay’s side, they were on Pound’s.   This was partly due to politics, but it also involved something even more primitive: naked ambition.

The New Critics, like their mentor, T.S. Eliot, were anti-populist, anti-Romantic and thought poetry should be especially difficult.  As they wrote their argumentative essays in the 30s and set up their Writing Programs at places like Iowa and Princeton in the early 40s, the New Critics pushed out the conservatives in the English Departments who clung to history and tradition, who worshiped Keats and Milton and Shelley; Eliot and Pound’s anti-19th century animus informed the New Critics as well.

The New Critical focus on “the text” was a means to an end: make history less relevant so the new writing could prosper as new writing.

The defensive tone of Cleanth Brooks is palpable (from Ransom’s Kenyon Review in 1951): “The formalist critic knows as well as anyone that poems and plays and novels are written by men…”   Men, for instance, like Ransom and Tate, who were eager to become famous and get into print? This fact the New Critics were shrewd enough not to emphasize as they launched their attacks against English Departments of history and biography in the name of whatever text-reading tricks they were advertising—and backpedalling from at every occasion (the formalist critic knows as well as anyone…).

Where were the biographies of Ransom and Tate?  That was the issue.

The non-formalist critics knew “as well as anyone” that “men” wrote “texts.”

The New Critics’ hobby horse of focusing on the text was never really an issue.

The English Departments which the Modernists (then on the outside in ‘amateur’ status) were assailing in the 1930s and 40s  were not ignoring texts. How were the New Critics themselves going to be taught in the English Departments?  This is the point, made even now, which makes the professional uncomfortable, for ambition is only for the amateur at last.

I just re-read Scarriet’s post -Why Keats’ “Ode to Psyche” Also Doesn’t Work by Christopher Woodman and Mr. Woodman’s herculean effort in comments below: his reading of the Keats poem, his explaining the Psyche myth, providing anecdotes from his teaching experience in Thailand.  Mr. Woodman also got into his objections to Scarriet’s March Madness, which I find interesting, because Mr. Woodman objects to the Keats poem because Keats is excluding rough & tumble aspects of reality.  But Mr. Woodman is doing precisely the same thing he accuses Keats of doing when he (Woodman) abuses Scarriet’s March Madness.

Here’s where the insidiousness of New Criticism comes into play.  Mr. Woodman, like everyone born after 1920 in the U.S., has been quietly influenced by the New Criticism.  The textbook, “Understanding Poetry” (first edition, 1938) was the first big textbook for poetry in the United States when the GI Bill expanded university enrollment after World War II, the beginning of the Writing Program Era, when poetry left the public square and became a college subject.

“The Red Wheel Barrow” by William Carlos Williams—a member, by way of Pound, of Ransom’s group—gets unalloyed praise in “Understanding Poetry.”

In his post and comments, Mr. Woodman puts tremendous energy into arguing against the Keats poem—which remains absolutely beautiful in the face of all his objections.

This, finally, is what the New Critics did: they over-argued poetry; they laid down a rhetoric in which something as simply beautiful as “Ode to Psyche” couldn’t exist.

If one puts over-argument next to “Ode to Psyche,” it withers.

If one puts over-argument next to “The Red Wheel Barrow,” simply by dint of energetic over-arguing, the “Red Wheel Barrow” grows in stature.

Because the “Wheel Barrow” was nothing in the first place, it can only gain by being discussed.

In the New Critical universe, whatever gains from mad scientist argumentation is good and whatever diminishes from mad scientist argumentation is bad.  This is the powerfully simple formula which carries the day.  By New Critical logic, (which is how academics by the nature of their work operate) “Ode to Psyche” is bad and “The Red Wheel Barrow” is good.

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13 Comments

  1. April 15, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    It’s interesting Tom, that when previously unmentioned aspects of a real Tradition 1000 years in print, are delivered here to you, you don’t seem interested in asking me about it.

    Very interesting, to me personally, as the Spokesperson for Bardic Lore in the second decade of the 21

    • thomasbrady said,

      April 16, 2010 at 10:45 am

      “you don’t seem interested in asking me about it”

      How many are interested in it, Des?

      So out of all who neglect your Tradition, I am the guilty one.

      As Spokesperson for Bardic Lore you must be really busy…haven’t time for anything else, especially for twits like me…

      Yet here you are expressing hurt that I “don’t seem interested…”

      Scarriet is interested in all aspects of poetry.

      BRING IT ON

  2. April 15, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    Century..

    VERY INTERESTING.

    I think your obsession with the New Critics is quaint and charming and lovely and everything, but ultimately pointless and boring.

    VERY BORING.

    Only ‘joking’ mate. I do find it incredibly attractive to tell the truth. What, coupled with your 20 year old photograph and deep fascination with baseball and football and throw in the Conspiracy to keep you out of your rightful place in American Letters: It all makes for a very fascinating read, for you at least, if not the Reader here for me.

    NOT U

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    I think the New Critics are brilliant. I love them. I sleep beneath sheets that have The Icebox on them. I have Red Wheelbarrow tattoed on my nuckles.

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    I love being Modern and different and exciting Tom, and think your theories are all a pile of nonsense. You just want to be read.

    ADMIT IT.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    April 16, 2010 at 10:47 am

    “I think the New Critics are brilliant.”

    “I love being Modern and different”

    “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA”

    sigh

  4. Bob Tonucci said,

    April 16, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    An analysis of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by Camille Paglia (from her book “Break, Blow, Burn”)

    Simplicity is the hallmark of William Carlos Williams’s most original work, which never loses its mysterious freshness. Like Wordsworth, Williams sought a common language to close the gap between poetry and everyday experience. “The Red Wheelbarrow” invites us to cast off habit and look at life again with childlike wonder. The poem is an extension of Imagism, a modernist Anglo-American movement influenced by unrhymed Asian poetry (such as haiku and tanka) that strictly limits the number of lines and syllables. In Imagist poetry, sharp physical details are presented but not explained: the images must speak for themselves.

    The red wheelbarrow carries a heavy load of meaning (“so much depends / upon”), but what that might be is left unsaid. Or perhaps it is inexpressible: language, as an emanation of the human brain, can never fully reach the stubbornly concrete world. To understand his own riveted reaction, Williams analyzes the scene into its visual elements and lays them out in small, spare units, unpunctuated to induce our contemplativeness. As an ordinary, functional, workaday object, the wheelbarrow wouldn’t rate a second glance from most passersby. But the poem sees it as potentially as beautiful and significant as any high symbol of art or culture. Another artist of Williams’s generation, the Dadaist Michel Duchamp (whom Williams knew), performed a similar alchemy on coal shovels and urinals. But by putting his “readymades” on exhibit in art shows, Duchamp altered their context. Williams honors the wheelbarrow’s natural environment and makes us feel its harmony.

    Though no people are visible, the wheelbarrow is their mark or signature, evidence of human industry and ingenuity. This robust tripod with its warm, festive color presides over the barnyard in a tranquil scene resembling a Dutch genre painting. It represents a stable agrarian society that was already slipping away when the poem was written. Time seems frozen in a moment of heightened perception. “Glazed with rain / water,” the wheelbarrow gleams as if sprinkled with diamonds or iced like a cake in a fairy tale.

    The rain may have stopped, but we still feel its soft fall in Williams’s spilling lines. The poem is a single sentence consisting of a series of prepositional phrases that dangle from the verb “depends” in the first line. The root meaning of “depend” is to hang down: hence the poem seems to rappel down the page on a smooth chain of words. Movement slows, then speeds up again at the surprise split of “wheelbarrow” in two: when “barrow” drops to the next line (cleverly sliding off “wheel”), we must pause and take breath. Conglomerations of language are being teased apart for inspection by the appraising eye.

    At the very end, “white / chickens” bring a hint of bustling energy to the otherwise inanimate tableau. They suggest purity, guilelessness, and inquisitive openness. Though chickens lack the romance of Aphrodite’s doves or the proud spirit of Yeats’s falcon, Williams is unembarrassed to make them his dramatis personae. Chickens are half-comical beings who long ago renounced flight to become man’s unasuming servants, domesticated citizens of the peaceable kingdom. Chickens may faint in a fight, but they are active, gregarious, and productive.

    As an object, Williams’s sparkling wheelbarrow is both surface and structure. Hence, like Wallace Stevens’s Tennessee jar, it can be seen as an analogue to the poem itself. Indeed, each of Williams’s neat, tiny stanzas has a recessive wheelbarrow shape: the first line is the wheelbarrow’s long handles, while the daringly terse, one-word second line mimics the sloping cart. The poem’s title, like a novelty cookie cutter, seems to be busily stamping out pointy stanzas from the sludgy batter of language.

    If the wheelbarrow is the artwork, then the milling chickens are perhaps partly a cartoon version of art’s restless, hungry audience with its pecking questions and complaints and short attention span. At the finale of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” the suspicious, uncomprehending audience does a hostile circle dance. In Williams’s poem, however, the audience loiters in neighborly coexistence with the steady, charitable artist. Solid and sturdy, the wheelbarrow represents Williams’s practical side of poetry: the artwork collects and transports material reality, but we do the sorting. In a democratic age of universal literacy, the artist is neither king nor outcast but the reader’s companion and equal partner. The leveling of hierarchies is also suggested by the poem’s humbling avoidance of capital letters.

    What “depends / upon” the wheelbarrow? For Williams, it is the act of ‘focus’, the effort to see clearly. Within its frame, art establishes relationships, even if the result of chance. The red wheelbarrow is merely “beside” the chickens, momentarily juxtaposed. But silvered with rain, it seems to glow with the numinous, as if the object world were sanctified by consciousness.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    April 17, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Camille Paglia gets an “A.”

  6. Bob Tonucci said,

    May 9, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

    by Kenneth Koch

    1
    I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
    I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
    and its wooden beams were so inviting.

    2
    We laughed at the hollyhocks together
    and then I sprayed them with lye.
    Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

    3
    I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
    The man who asked for it was shabby
    and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

    4
    Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
    Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
    I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 9, 2010 at 9:39 pm

      LOL Bravo, Kenneth!

  7. Marcus Bales said,

    May 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    This Is Just To Say

    I have flamed
    the posters
    on your favorite
    thread

    with whom
    you were probably
    falling
    in love

    Forgive me
    they were appalling
    so dull
    and so dumb.

  8. Tattooch said,

    September 4, 2010 at 12:31 am

    From ‘Break, Blow, Burn’ by Camille Paglia

    WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS

    This Is Just to Say

    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    saving
    for breakfast

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold

    With its offhand title, “This Is Just to Say” pretends to be no more than a memo, jotted in haste on a scrap of paper. But it is a highly original love poem whose casualness is a deft tribute and token of intimacy and respect. The note has been left in a kitchen, female space usually ignored by major literature. The poet knows that he is an intruder, a vandal disrupting the orderly center of life. His palpable sense of trespass turns the plums into forbidden fruit.

    In genre, the poem is a mock confession and appeal for absolution. By confiscating the plums, the poet has preempted tomorrow morning’s meal and sabotaged his wife’s good housekeeping. “Forgive me,” the poet pleads, as if his wife were not only Eve with her seductive apple but the garden’s angry deity to be propitiated. She commands this realm even in her absence. At one level, the succulent, fleshy fruit is a makeshift proxy for the opulent female form. The poet feels naughty and childlike yet also smugly triumphant, like a hero spiriting away a fabulous treasure (compare Jason and the Golden Fleece). But his trophy is merely a simple pleasure and summer staple, a sun-ripened, royal purple gift of nature.

    The note was evidently written overnight, while the rest of the family was asleep. Perhaps Williams, a physician by profession, returned from a house call or was working late at his desk and went foraging for a snack. The chilled plums, with their burst of multiple sensations, bring true refreshment, bracing and restorative after mental tension and fatigue. Hence the poem offers homage to the provisioner of this happy oasis. Women have been honored in poetry as lovers and (from the Renaissance on) as faithful wives, but rarely have they appeared as homemakers, queens of their own domain. Williams asks for no wider world than this. The disdainful frigidity of the Petrarchan lady takes amusing new form: the omnipotent mistress now rules the icebox, which has supplanted the blazing hearth as the vital center of the modern kitchen. The poem’s narrow shape actually resembles an icebox, a two-tiered fortress (block ice above, perishables below) that was transformed during Williams’s lifetime into the streamlined electric refrigerator. Opening like a vault, the icebox is analogous to a book or poem, which stores up reshaped experience for future pleasure.

    Despite its deceptive plainness, “This Is Just to Say” triggers deep associations in the reader by playing on mythic patterns of sin and desire; female secrecy and fertility; and male aggression and violation. The fragmentary, nondescript title—just a sentence sliver — is self-referential in the modernist way, yet the poem’s brimming emotion is too rich for irony. Paced by short, halting lines, the rhythms are bewitchingly slow, evoking the reassuring stability of domestic routine. The poem’s condensed time scheme is surprisingly complex. The first stanza takes us backward into the dark recesses of the icebox, where the plums nest like eggs. The second stanza leaps forward to the wife’s projected enjoyment of the now-aborted breakfast. The third stanza returns to the past—to the poet’s gluttonous indulgence, vividly re-created through universal, primary properties (“so sweet / and so cold”) that make us shiver with delight.

    Hovering over the poem is an invisible figure similar to the one in John Donne’s “The Flea”—a strong, silent female companion whose favor is begged and whose judgment is comically feared. Williams exaggerates his apprehension and psychological distance to set the stage for reconciliation. His poem is an offering and bribe to convert his wife’s disapproval to forgiveness—turning her, in other words, from “cold” to “sweet.” Hence the “delicious” fruitiness of the final images has the tactile lushness of a kiss.

    • thomasbrady said,

      September 4, 2010 at 7:30 pm

      Paglia is wowed by the fact that plums in an icebox are “cold.” That they were eaten, and that the eater wants forgiveness.

      Will wonders never cease?

      Jason and the Golden Fleece?

      But what of the inventor of the icebox?

      Shouldn’t we discuss that, too?

  9. noochinator said,

    September 4, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    One must remember Paglia is a teacher —
    And I strongly suspect (though I know I’m a fool) —
    She likes the poem less for its brilliance —
    Than for its utility as a teaching tool.

  10. thomasbrady said,

    September 4, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    I suspect Camille is in the front row,
    Giving the other kids dirty looks.
    Her hand is up, she has the answer,
    For her professor—Cleanth Brooks.


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